New York City

Why have anti-Semitic hate crimes risen in New York?

Political polarization exacerbated by social media may be to blame, experts say.

Central Synagogue in Midtown Manhattan.

Central Synagogue in Midtown Manhattan. Felix Lipov/Shutterstock

In 2019, New York City experienced a record number of anti-Semitic hate crimes, the highest it had seen since 1992. Similar trends are seen nationwide, with the Anti-Defamation League reporting that the United States saw the greatest number of anti-Semitic acts in 2017 since it began tracking such acts three decades ago. Given that 1.8 million Jews live in New York, the largest Jewish population of any state, many of those attacks have occurred here.

Nothing has made that spike more apparent than the wave of attacks directed at the Jewish community throughout the tri-state area, including the shooting at a Jersey City kosher grocery store to the machete attack at a rabbi’s home in Rockland County. 

Elected officials have rallied against the spike in crimes. Having just visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pledged to get certain hate crimes labeled domestic terrorism, to increase security funding for religious institutions and to require students to visit museums providing education related to the Holocaust. New York’s congressional delegates have similarly encouraged community groups at risk of being targeted to apply for federal security funding.

But aside from the educational initiatives, these efforts don’t address why these crimes are on the rise in the first place. And that cause can be difficult to place given that the perpetrators of these crimes in New York cut across racial demographics and ideologies. Throughout the first three-quarters of the year, most people arrested for commiting anti-Semitic hate crimes were white but many perpetrators observed in the most recent attacks are people of color. To understand why anti-Semitic acts are on the rise in New York and what can be done about it, City & State consulted the following experts: Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino; Evan Bernstein, vice president of the Northeast division of the Anti-Defamation League; Yossi Gestetner, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council; and Jeannine Bell, an expert in hate crimes and professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

Why have anti-Semitic hate crimes been on the rise in New York? Why, when most perpetrators nationally are white people on the far-right, have so many attackers in New York been people of color?

Brian Levin: Anti-Semitic hate crimes hit a modern record in New York City in 2019 with 234. Through the first three quarters, the majority of those arrested in New York City were white and the racial breakdowns were in line with that of all those arrested for all hate crimes in the city. However, in the last two weeks of Dec. 2019 there were 21 anti-Semitic hate crimes and many of those assailants were people of color (but we don't have the final data on it).

A few things appear to be influencing the rise of anti-Semitic hate crime. First, when societies become socio-politically fragmented, there is less of a communal firewall to repel the harmful stereotypes that fuel hate crime. In particular Jews have a trifecta working against them. When nationalism, conspiracy theories and and anti-elitism grow, Jews represent a convenient scapegoat, and these derisive perspectives toward Jews aided by social media, spread like a virus spreads across the ideological spectrum. In addition, New York is home to the largest Jewish population in the world (outside of Israel) – 25% of U.S. Jews reside in New York state – so population density and local demographics means there are a lot of diverse people squeezed into a city where they will have frequent, but limited, interactions, some of which are conflictual. This plays out in cities across the U.S., so in LA, for example, people of color commit the overwhelming majority of racial hate crimes against each other. Lastly, mental illness, ignorance and a copy-cat mentality also contribute to hate crimes spike. Interestingly, four of the five worst months nationally for anti-Semitic hate crimes over the last three decades came around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, until Oct. 2018, when the spike was around a conflictual national mid-term election cycle. Lastly, remember anti-Semitism has thousands of years of anchoring across many societies. 

Evan Bernstein: There is no one factor that points to why anti-Semitism is on the rise in New York. The rise of social media has given those who espouse anti-Semitic and hateful messages a platform to broadcast those views to a much larger audience. While extremist groups or those who ascribe to extremist ideologies seek to spread their hateful messages nationally, the data does not show a correlation of those groups to individuals who commit hate crimes in New York City.

It is important to keep in mind that each of these anti-Semitic incidents is separate – there is, to date, no connection between them, no connection between any of the perpetrators – a number of whom are juveniles under 18 and several who have not been apprehended – and no apparent ideological motivation driving the actions of these few individuals. 

When the Anti-Defamation League has seen evidence of ideology-driven racist and anti-Semitic extremism – like in the case of the murders at the JC Kosher Market in Jersey City – we have called it out and labeled it as such. But where no such evidence exists, it would be offensive, dangerous, and inaccurate to place blame on an entire racial group, or to call for action or repudiation from black community leaders, based on the actions of a few individuals.

Like the Jewish community, the African American and black communities are not monolithic – and there are many black Jews and Jews of color. We must be careful to avoid painful and dangerous stereotypes or assumptions that seek to distract and divide our communities.

Why do the attacks in NY seem mostly to target ultra-Orthodox Jews?

Yossi Gestetner: Orthodox Jews are, well, visibly Jewish, so they are easier to ID. In addition, most of the conversation in politics and on social media about Orthodox Jews is in a negative context filled with broad-brush lies and innuendo; not done to other communities. It has become worse the last five to 10 years. So whether you are a Black Israelite in Jersey or a 17-year-old bully in Brooklyn, who else but on the beat-down Jew – who "causes" all the "problems" and it is easier for you to find – will you act out on?

Bernstein: Unfortunately, individuals who are more identifiably Jewish in the New York metropolitan area are more likely to be the victims of anti-Semitic assaults or hate crimes simply because they are easily identified. This is especially true for the Ultra-Orthodox community. Because of their traditional black hats and coats for men, they are easy targets for those who hold or espouse anti-Semitic views.

Levin: Orthodox Jews are targeted because many of the stereotypical images of "scheming" Jews show them dressed in religious garb, which is easily identifiable. Second, to be close to each other, synagogues and kosher stores, Orthodox people are often living in geographically small communities within cities, which also make them easier to target. The commercial and religious establishments that Orthodox Jews frequent are also places non-Jews may not go to as much, making opportunities for more tranquil spontaneous meetings less common. 

How can New York stem this rise in anti-Semitic attacks?

Levin: Some solutions include executive leadership from the mayor and governor, stepped up enforcement, and additional security for Jewish institutions. More fundamentally, education is important because for many offenders, prejudices are actually shallow, but ignorance deep. This is especially true respecting Judaism's place in the Abrahamic tree and the lessons of the Holocaust, as survivors become increasingly rare. Moreover, a lack of meaningful direct interactions so that diverse folks can experience empathy with each other is often lost in an era where many, particularly young people are socially isolated and online more, where bigotry has greater currency. 

Jeannine Bell: The answer to stemming the rise in anti-Semitic attacks lies in law enforcement bias-crime units, both prosecution and police based. The cities that are most serious about providing support to targets of bias-motivated violence have specialized police hate crime units and prosecutors both experienced in, and dedicated to bias-crime prosecution. 

Gestetner: Politicians and pundits need to write and speak about Hasidic Jews with the same standards that they do about African Americans or Muslims. After the hate shooting at a church in South Carolina, sane pundits did not write about "clashes" between blacks and whites and then blame blacks for it; but this rhetoric was used against Hasidim. In addition, steady enforcement of the law can help: 72% of the 515 reported anti-Semitic cases in New York City from 2017 through late 2019 did not lead yet to an arrest!

Bernstein: Education is one important way to stem this rise. The Anti-Defamation League is always working to improve and implement anti-bias education in schools, as we recently announced, together with the Brooklyn borough president’s office, an expansion of our premier education program, No Place For Hate, in order to bring twice as many schools our resources, given the recent uptick in anti-Semitic incidents within the borough. It is also crucial to support strong hate crime laws and enhanced penalties for those who act on their hatred with violence. 

It is also important for the public to report hate incidents and hate crimes immediately, not only to their local law enforcement agencies but to the Anti-Defamation League as well, so that we are able to accurately count how many anti-Semitic incidents are occurring within each county in New York.